SINGAPORE, Jan 14 — Parents need to find the balance between the advantages of technology and the effect it has on kids’ social skills, say experts
Almost everything we do these days involves a screen, and this is true even for children. From gaming to learning about any topic to social media and even schoolwork, children are faced with screens every day. While some of this is a necessary evil of growing up in the 21st century, using gadgets should be curtailed as it could affect your child’s physical and mental health.
Even Apple has acknowledged the possible ramifications of too much screen time on kids. In response to an open letter by the company’s investors titled “Think Differently About Kids”, Apple recently announced it is planning better parental control features in future versions of its iOS operating system.
While too much gadget use could affect young children’s social and emotional development, social anxiety is possible too, although other factors, such as an individual’s personality, previous experiences and environmental conditions, come into play as well. But what exactly is social anxiety?
Dr Lois Teo, head and senior principal psychologist (clinical), psychology service, at KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital, cited the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual 5 (DSM-5) of the American Psychiatric Association, which defines this condition as “a persistent fear of one or more social or performance situations in which an individual is exposed to unfamiliar people or to possible scrutiny by others”.
“It’s an anxiety disorder characterised by overwhelming anxiety and excessive self-consciousness in everyday social situations, where individuals persistently fear that he or she will act in a way (or show anxiety symptoms) that will be embarrassing and humiliating,” she elaborated. “The individual recognises that this fear is unreasonable and excessive. Yet, the feared situations are avoided or are endured with intense anxiety and distress.”
Dr Natalie Games, a psychologist at Alliance Professional Counselling, admitted that tying social anxiety to gadget use is “a tricky area” as studies have found the relationship between gadgets and social skills is beneficial in some cases, but also plays an integral role in the development of social anxiety as well as a drop in key aspects of important social and emotional literacy skills.
“It could be considered that social media and the use of gadgets is a crutch for those awkward teenage years when adolescence is a crucial time in terms of social development,” she explained. “Important skills like eye contact, emotional literacy skills from observing others interact and empathy from interactions are only learned from face-to-face communication. Therefore, we need a balance between using technology and talking to people, both within the classroom and socially.”
Watch for signs
To know if your child is veering towards social anxiety, Dr Teo advised parents to look out for any unusual and/or significant changes in their children’s behaviour. She listed examples such as avoidance, anxious anticipation, or distress in the feared social or performance situation. Parents should seek professional help if these behavioural changes begin to interfere with the child/family’s normal routine, academic functioning, social activities or relationships, or there is marked distress about having the phobia.
Dr Games noted that social anxiety could manifest in different ways in younger children and teenagers. While younger ones tend to experience more physical symptoms (e.g. Stomach aches or complaints about feeling sick) and may refuse to participate in social activities or speak in certain situations, they do not have the cognitive skills to be able to say what they are worried about, or what they are thinking.
Teenagers, on the other hand, are more aware of their thoughts and, in addition to possible physical symptoms, those who experience social anxiety would also be more cognitively aware, and say things like, “I’m going to make a fool of myself”.
“Teenagers with social anxiety are overly preoccupied by what others are thinking about them, or if others are looking at or talking about them,” said Dr Games. “Parents and teachers would see these teenagers are missing more school, or not contributing to class discussions, group or oral projects, sporting or performance teams.
“Teenagers with social anxiety would have more difficulties with dating or experience more problems at work due to challenges in job interviews and interacting with co-workers and people in authority figures, such as their bosses,” she added.
Quality time counts
Parents can help kids avoid social anxiety by helping them brush up on their social skills. Dr Games suggested practising two-way conversations, such as talking to your child in a restaurant instead of distracting them with technology, and having your child practice how to initiate a conversation, listen and respond appropriately, deal with uncomfortable pauses and conflicts that arise when interacting in face-to-face situations.
“Social skills are life skills,” she said. “Underdeveloped social skills can hinder children’s long-term opportunities as they need good social skills to develop positive relationships with everyone (parents, siblings, family, friends, peers, co-workers), be resilient in times of stress and distress, cope with social rejection, and take responsibility for their contributions in promoting a healthy, safe and positive school and home environment.”
The key is to spend quality time with children and limit their gadget use. The more face-to-face conversations kids have, the less anxious they will be when interacting with others.
“Provide your child with small daily opportunities to interact with others,” said Dr Teo. “Children who are socially anxious do need some downtime, especially if they prefer to keep to themselves. However, they also need plenty of opportunities to practise their social skills.
“Remember that empathising with your child does not mean being over-protective,” she added. “If your child is worried, remind him/her that he/she can do challenging things. Open sharing within the family about what they find challenging is helpful. Applaud every little step your child takes on his/her own.”
Parents could also rope in teachers or school counsellors “to further help your child build social skills and foster friendships with other classmates”, said Dr Teo. She suggested meeting them to share more and for ongoing liaison and effective communication.
Dr Games pointed out that well-educated teachers know the need for a balance between using technology to enhance their teaching and their students’ learning in the virtual world as well as bringing them back into the real world.
“The use of group projects and collaborative efforts in schools to encourage face-to-face communication is powerful and effective,” she said. “Slowing things down in a classroom helps children take the time to focus and gives greater control to the teacher to monitor cooperative learning and assess the efficacy of students’ work.” — TODAY